All posts in “Politics”

Sierra Leone just ran the first blockchain-based election

The citizens of Sierra Leone went to the polls on March 7 but this time something was different: the country recorded votes at 70% of the polling to the blockchain using a technology that is the first of its kind in actual practice.

The tech, created by Leonardo Gammar of Agora, anonymously stored votes in an immutable ledger, thereby offering instant access to the election results.

“Anonymized votes/ballots are being recorded on Agora’s blockchain, which will be publicly available for any interested party to review, count and validate,” said Gammar. “This is the first time a government election is using blockchain technology.”

“Sierra Leone wishes to create an environment of trust with the voters in a contentious election, especially looking at how the election will be publicly viewed post-election. By using blockchain as a means to immutably record ballots and results, the country hopes to create legitimacy around the election and reduce fall-out from opposition parties,” he said.

Why is this interesting? While this is little more than a proof of concept – it is not a complete voting record but instead captured a seemingly acceptable plurality of votes – it’s fascinating to see the technology be implemented in Sierra Leone, a country of about 7.4 million people. The goal ultimately is to reduce voting costs by cutting out paper ballots as well as reducing corruption in the voting process.

Gammar, for his part, sees the value of a decentralizes system.

“We’re the only company in the world that has built a fully-functional blockchain voting platform. Other electronic voting machines are ‘block boxes’ that have been increasingly shown to be vulnerable to security attacks. For that reason, many US states and foreign nations have been moving back to paper,” he said. “If you believe that most countries will use some form of digital voting 50 years from now, then blockchain is the only technology that has been created which can provide an end-to-end verifiable and fully-transparent voting solution for this future.”

One election in one country isn’t a movement – yet. However, Gammar and his team plan on expanding their product to other African countries and, eventually, to the rest of the world.

As for the election it is still unclear who won and there will be a run-off election on March 27. The winner will succeed President Ernest Bai Koroma who has run the country for a full decade.

Chinese iCloud account privacy may be at risk once Apple complies with new laws

Image: yichuan cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Apple is preparing for a big change at the end of the month: Henceforth, iCloud data belonging to users based in China will have to be stored there, in the company’s new Chinese data center.

That means text message, emails, and other data stored in the cloud will be physically housed on Chinese soil. Importantly, it also means that the cryptographic keys required to unlock an iCloud account will live in China as well.

Previously, as Reuters points out, those keys had been stored in the United States. Whenever Chinese authorities have sought access to a user’s account in the past for one reason or another, they’d have to go through the processes set forth in the U.S. legal system.

Moving the keys to a data center in China means that authorities can seek access to iCloud accounts using the local legal system instead. This is a worry to human rights and privacy advocates, who fear what the country’s looser privacy restrictions and the broad powers held by local authorities might mean.

“Even very early in a criminal investigation, police have broad powers to collect evidence,” Jeremy Daum, an attorney and research fellow based in Beijing, told Reuters.  “[They are] authorized by internal police procedures rather than independent court review, and the public has an obligation to cooperate.”

China’s data privacy laws also offer little protection when the authorities in question are investigating certain criminal offenses, including some that many countries would define as political suppression. 

Two Chinese citizens were jailed as dissidents in 2002 for distributing pro-democracy writings and other materials. It was later discovered that the damning evidence had been provided to the Chinese government by Yahoo, prompting harsh criticism. The tech company later apologized and settled a lawsuit brought by the families of Chinese activists.

While plenty has changed in China since the events of 2002 — that was more than a decade before the country’s longtime ban on video game consoles finally lifted, for example — concerns remain. 

Some have criticized Apple’s decision, but the company contends it tried to keep this from happening. 

“While we advocated against iCloud being subject to these laws, we were ultimately unsuccessful,” a statement provided to Reuters reads. Apple claims that moving iCloud data and encryption keys to China is preferable to shutting down iCloud services there completely, a move that the company says would add to the risk of user security and privacy being compromised.

Apple maintains that it alone controls the encryption keys, regardless of the nation in which they’re based. Even its Chinese partner — the state-owned Guizhou, which helped to get the data center established — doesn’t have access.

Of course, that’s exactly what a company concerned with its own interests would say in a situation like this. Apple’s partnership with Guizhou is a necessity; without it, the U.S. company wouldn’t be able to store data in China under the new rules. That, in turn, could cut off Apple’s access to the large Chinese market of more than 1 billion potential customers.

Critics, meanwhile, feel that Apple caved too easily. New York Times writer and college professor Zeynep Tufekci, one such critic, articulated her feelings on the move in a pair of tweets.

Whatever you believe, the move is happening and it goes into effect on Feb. 28. 

An Apple support article makes clear that, as of Feb. 28, users in China will be required to accept a new terms of service agreement if they wish to continue using iCloud. The company told Reuters that more than 99.9 percent of the current users there have already done so.

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Facebook will verify the location of US election ad buyers by mailing them postcards

Facebook’s global director of policy programs says it will start sending postcards by snail mail to verify buyers of ads related to United States elections. Katie Harbath, who described the plan at a conference held by the National Association of Secretaries of State this weekend, didn’t reveal when the program will start, but told Reuters it would be before the congressional midterm elections in November.

The cards will be sent to people who want to purchase ads that mention candidates running for federal offices, but not issue-based political ads, Harbath said, and contain a code that buyers need to enter to verify that they are in the U.S. The program is similar to ones used by Google My Business and Nextdoor when they need to verify business owners or users who want to join closed neighborhood groups, respectively.

Harbath told Reuters that the postcards “won’t solve everything,” but were the most effective method the company came up with to prevent people from using false identities to purchase ads. In October, Facebook vice president of ads Rob Goldman published a blog post saying that the platform planned to create more transparency around ads by taking steps that include a searchable archive of federal-election ads and requiring political advertisers to verify their identity.

Facebook, Twitter and Google executives were called to testify in front of Senate last fall about how Russians used their platforms to spread misinformation intended to sway the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign. The companies have been criticized for not doing enough to prevent false advertising. The issue escalated last week when U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller handed down a set of indictments charging 13 Russian citizens and three Russian organizations, including a bot farm, with interfering in the presidential election through operations including fake social media accounts.

Featured Image: Elena Pezzini Photography/Getty Images

Special counsel Robert Mueller indicts Russian bot farm for election meddling

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has just handed down a set of indictments, charging 13 Russian citizens and three Russian organizations with interference in the U.S. presidential election in efforts dating back to 2014.

The indictment names the Internet Research Agency, a bot farm and disinformation operation based out of St. Petersburg, as one of the sources of the fake accounts meant to create divisions in American society. Those accounts were active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and the indictment brings up specific examples from the internal review results that these tech companies handed over to Congress.

Congress has taken an active interest in these ads and the companies that facilitated their dissemination, calling the heads of Facebook, Google and Twitter to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee last October. The House and Senate Intelligence committees, both conducting their own parallel investigations into election interference, investigated the content of these fake accounts and the circumstances that led to their spread.

Mueller is spearheading the far-reaching ongoing investigation into meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. While these early charges are targeted at Russian nationals, Mueller has also taken an active interest in former members of the Trump campaign, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who stands accused of money laundering.

The new indictments center around the allegation that those named violated laws that forbid foreign entities from contributing money to influence U.S. federal elections. The Russians face multiple charges, including one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud and six counts of aggravated identity theft.

You can read the full text of the indictment, embedded below.

Featured Image: Ivan Osipov / EyeEm/Getty Images